After spending much of the last two weeks performing research in Edinburgh and Glasgow, I have a new appreciation for manual approaches to cataloguing material in local archives. During this post, I would like to spend some time re-evaluating the utility and challenges of both manual and electronic search tools to historical research in libraries and archives, while also reflecting upon their importance to larger developments in historical scholarship.
Despite the predilection among historians to explain the minutiae of theoretical perspectives and methodological choices in selecting archival evidence to make historical claims, the organization and technology used in
archives is rarely mentioned. Older technology remains a fact of life in many smaller or local archives and proficiency in their use is important for anyone starting graduate studies or supplementing work performed at larger institutions.
Manual catalogues can be a nightmare for users. As a social-cultural historian of the print trade, the National Archives of Scotland’s name-based Court of Session holdings and the National Library’s accession-date manuscript catalogues have presented me with numerous challenges due to their lack of occupational search options. Addressing this issue has both widened and contextualized the original scope of my research by forcing me to engage with and account for contradictions and inconsistencies of sources that don’t fit neatly into narrow lines of enquiry.
Nevertheless, card catalogues and paper indices are often extremely versatile in placing search terms in proximity to one another in ways that users of electronic catalogues no longer employ with regularity, such as ‘shelf searches’ or specialized ‘subject trees’ that enable researchers to view related holdings upon a single page.
But despite a widespread belief that the lack of online search options in smaller archives is simply an issue of technological availability, this issue has become central to the way that both graduate students and faculty formulate questions and conduct their research. I can’t help but wondering if the recent turn towards ‘global’ or ‘interregional’ perspectives has come about in part due to the centralization of source material and networking amongst larger archives and institutions. While useful in itself, this has come at the expense of exploring questions of local significance.
Manual catalogues also contain certain advantages that should be built upon in the development of electronic search tools. One of these is to partially duplicate the process of ‘editing’ in manual catalogues through the open modification of electronic archival records by users – a ‘Wikipedia’ approach to archival research. This enables users to provide both individualized feedback on particular sources while also providing a collective interpretive framework with potential future value for historians.
Another way of incorporating the methods of manual catalogues into electronic searches is through the broadening of individual search results to include a greater range of information on the provenance of records within their original accession. Admittedly, this is often difficult as local or private collections are donated and ‘incorporated’ into larger institutions, but can provide crucial information about textual hierarchies and intertextual relationships that can remain otherwise obscured.
None of this should be taken as an argument that libraries and archives shouldn’t seeke every opportunity to expand the technological abilities of users to search for and access historical sources. But in doing so we must be aware of technological inequalities and relatively recent inclusion in the process of historical research. Furthermore, by continuing to favour the ‘central’ over the ‘local’ through the rubrick of accessibility, we affect the types of questions asked and replicate logical (but extant) divisions within our discipline.